New global standard adopted for making trade in plants and seeds safer

There is an increasing risk that pests carried by seeds could establish themselves and spread after planting

By DTE Staff
Published: Friday 21 April 2017
Seeds are then shipped to different countries for cleaning, treating, testing and packaging before they are sold and shipped again Credit: International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center / Flickr

Global trade in plants and seeds should not only be profitable, but also safer. The International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC)'s governing body—the Commission on Phytosanitary Measures (CPM)—has taken a stride forward with the adoption of a new global standard in Incheon, South Korea, on April 13.

Areas of concern

Each year, ships ferry more than 500 million large steel containers filled with cargo to and from all corners of the planet. Unfortunately, that cargo can sometimes hide agricultural pests—from gypsy moths to giant African snails and Argentine ants. Once the pests land on shore, they can wreak havoc on crops.

Surge in agricultural trade via online marketplaces is making it more difficult for countries to ensure that all shipments are free from bugs and diseases.

The threat of pest transmission posed by seeds is another major concern. Unlike other agricultural products like wheat, barley or lentils that are meant for consumption, seeds are destined for planting. Hence, there is a greater risk that any pests they carry could establish themselves and spread after planting.

Facts about movement of seeds

  • Seeds are moved internationally for many uses: production of food, biofuels, fibre and also for pharmacological uses.
  • They also have pre-commercial uses like research, breeding and seed multiplication
  • Seeds, when introduced to a new environment, may present a pest risk
  • The international movement of seeds may involve small or large quantities
  • Often, several years pass between production and export of seeds to the final destinations


Seeds are moved internationally for many uses

Addressing these risks is a complex task

Seed companies often operate breeding programmes in several countries for producing more than one crop each season. These seeds are then shipped to different parts of the world for cleaning, treating, testing and packaging before they are sold and shipped again. At times, despite being in storage for a long period of time, the final destination of the seeds is not known at the time of export.

The proposed standard approaches to risk assessment and testing will help countries deal with complexities of international seed trade—valued at some US$ 12 billion annually—and also ensure that shipments safeguard food supplies for the global population.

Protecting plants vital to feeding a hungry world

The IPPC's work, according to Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), is vital for achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A hunger-free world can only be accomplished with healthy plants free from pests.

According to Kundhavi Kadiresan, FAO Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific, "Because the IPPC is the only organisation to set government-recognised plant health standards that facilitate international trade, the decisions made here will be essential to further protecting the world's plant resources, the very foundation of life."

"These standards, which are built on consensus, are the most effective way to prevent the introduction and spread of plant pests to new environments, and avoid devastating impacts on plants as well as biodiversity, food security and trade," said Jingyuan Xia, IPPC Secretary.

The threat of pest transmission posed by seeds is a major concern

Outline of Requirements

When assessing pest risk and determining phytosanitary measures, National Plant Protection Organisations (NPPOs) should consider intended use of seeds: research, planting under restricted conditions or under natural conditions.

A pest risk analysis (PRA) should be done to determine if the seeds facilitate entry, establishment and spread of quarantine pests.

The PRA should consider the purpose for which the seeds are imported (planting, research or testing) and the potential:

  • for quarantine pests to be introduced and spread
  • for non-quarantine pests to cause disaster when present above a threshold

Specific phytosanitary measures may be used to reduce the pest risk associated with international movement of seeds, including phytosanitary measures that may be applied before planting, during growth, at seed harvest, post-harvest, during seed processing, storage and transportation, and on arrival in the importing country. Phytosanitary measures may be used either alone or in combination to manage the pest risk.

The CPM further considered guidelines for an import regulatory system and a series of treatments that stop pests from burrowing into wooden packaging materials and methods to stop fruit flies from attacking citrus fruits.

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